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Will Marion Cook’s Underappreciated Musical Legacy

In: Film and Music

Submitted By tanmayee
Words 2656
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Will Marion Cook is a name to reckon with in the history of black American music. “His great genius will always be a guiding star to those of us who remain,” black violinist Clarence Cameron White wrote on hearing of Cook’s death. Trumpeter Arthur Briggs called Cook “the greatest real musician ever.” Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake praised him as a mentor.
Yet while Ellington’s and Blake’s careers are well documented, only academics can describe Cook’s. Even diehard fans of the American popular songbook are hard-pressed to name one of his songs. The first recording devoted to his work appeared only a few years ago, and Marva Griffin Carter’s 2008 biography, Swing Along, is the first since his death in 1944. In the end, the fact of Cook’s importance is better known than its reason. A significant composer, but of what? Didn’t he write something like the first black Broadway musical? Yes, but what else?
The tale most often told about Cook has him returning from conservatory training at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik in 1889 and performing a concert at Carnegie Hall. When a reviewer praised him as “the world’s greatest Negro violinist,” Cook stormed into his office, smashed his violin to bits on the man’s desk, and yelled, “I am not the world’s greatest Negro violinist. I am the greatest violinist in the world!” He never played the violin again.
Cook’s words might suggest that racism explains his obscurity. Yet a few years later, Cook gave the world a song with these lyrics:
Such queer foolin’ now I never could stand,
Didn’t want my Lula loving no nigger man,
I then grabbed that woman just to scare her a bit,
The way that wench did holler, well you’d tho’t she had a fit,
Up jump’d the other nigger and I grabbed at his arm,
When he drew his steel I knew he meant to do me harm . . .
Racism is hardly the only reason people aren’t doing this one at the piano bars.…...

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